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Is The STEM Education Crisis A Myth?


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. This is the time of year when many students are packing up for the Thanksgiving holidays, and many educators are doing their end-of-the-year evaluations. So we decided to spend some time this week talking about education. Later, we'll tell you about some of the challenges facing Philadelphia's public school system. Those problems are both typical of a number of other school districts, and unique and troubling. That's later.

But first, we want to turn to higher education. And you've probably heard about the push for more college students to study science, technology, engineering and math - the so-called STEM fields. Some education experts and policymakers argue that if the U.S. does not boost the number of workers in those jobs, that America will lose its competitive edge as a global innovator. But others say that there is no STEM crisis at all; that this is actually a myth, and that colleges should integrate STEM and the humanities into a broader education.

We wanted to talk more about this. So we've called someone whose own research often challenges conventional wisdom about education, and that's Anthony Carnevale. He's a research professor and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. He's back with us in our Washington, D.C., studios. Welcome back. Thanks for joining us once again.

ANTHONY CARNEVALE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So part of what got us thinking about this is a recent article in "The Chronicle of Higher Education" that questioned whether there is actually a shortage of American workers in the STEM fields, by extension, a shortage in the number of students actually studying those STEM fields. So we wanted to start by asking, what's your stand on this?

CARNEVALE: You have to remember that STEM makes up only about 7 percent of the jobs in the American economy. On the other hand, we know that anybody who majors in STEM often doesn't stay in STEM. For instance, by the time most STEM majors are 35 years old, they're in management. They leave. They no longer work on the bench, in the lab. So we need to produce a lot more STEM workers than we actually use, initially, because we lose so many of them along the way because their careers are relatively successful.

MARTIN: So yeah, I was going to ask you about that. Why is that? You said that there's a lot of churn in that field - in those fields, unlike - is that in contrast to humanities fields, where people tend to stay in the same field? Why is that?

CARNEVALE: In the old days - not that long ago - the notion was you got a general education, and then you could do anything. That is more and more true of people in STEM. That is, a technical education now allows you to do anything. And anything, for most workers, means having a job that's fairly focused as a STEM worker; but then moving on to management or into a regulatory roll, or into a government job. So STEM has become the place where you go if you want to have a lot of alternatives, 10 years down the road.

MARTIN: What do we know about the job and salary opportunities for STEM graduates, in contrast to people who studied the humanities or focused on the humanities?

CARNEVALE: With the exception of two STEM fields, at the moment - civil engineering and architecture, both of which have been hard-hit by the housing collapse - STEM graduates are the most highly paid. The most highly paid major is still - has been, for five or six years - petroleum engineer, which earns about $120,000 a year, over a lifetime.

MARTIN: We also understand that the postsecondary education - or sorry, rather, post-college, postgraduate education in those fields has really expanded in recent years. But you were telling us post-college or graduate education has expanded for everybody, right?

CARNEVALE: There are three ways you've got to go to graduate school, or you ought to go to graduate school. One is, when you have to. And that is, if you're going to be a teacher now, you need a master's degree. If you're going to be - work in psychology as a counselor, you need a master's degree. If you are an art major and you want to get a decent job, you need a master's degree. You're crazy if you don't go to graduate school if you're a STEM major. While a B.A. will make you a fair amount of money, the graduate degree increases that by a full 30 percent.

MARTIN: So let's now, for the time that we have left, kind of focus on kind of two different questions. There's, like, the nuts and bolts of how it actually works to be in this economy right now, studying STEM versus studying other things. And then I want to address the broader sort of social questions of whether it's good that it works that way, and what are some of the kind of bigger moral - if you want to use it that way - questions attached to this.

The first thing I wanted to ask is, there is a line of thought that STEM graduates - that it costs more to educate kids in certain fields, or to educate students in certain fields. So therefore, those students should pay more for that education. What are your thoughts about that?

CARNEVALE: That's already happening. Given the crisis in funding in higher education, more and more colleges and universities are charging more either because they don't discount the tuition as much for majors in business and in STEM and other fields, and also because it actually costs more to provide those classes. If I want to set up a college and teach people humanities, I ask them to bring an iPad and download some books. If I want to teach a chemist, I have to have a lab.

MARTIN: So is that, in fact, happening now; that colleges and universities are actually charging these students more? And, you know, I want to know your opinion about this. So if that's the facts, what are your opinions about this 'cause one could argue it in either way. You could argue that these students tend to have more income opportunities later on, that that's perfectly fine. If it costs - the baseline cost is more, then that's perfectly fine.

But there are others who might argue that that's a barrier to entry, and that this is exactly the kind of thing that just replicates the existing status hierarchy. The kids who have more money, they go into those fields; they're going to make more money. Other kids aren't going to get that leg up, if it costs more to participate in that kind of education. What's your take on that?

CARNEVALE: If we give kids who go into STEM and business, and some of the other high-paying majors - and high-cost majors, in the case of STEM - we are going to reinforce intergenerational reproduction of economic privilege. And so I think that's a bad idea. That's my bias. And on the other hand, I do think that government - and government pays for education, essentially, and college in America - government should recognize the fact that a STEM course costs more.

And government aid, institutional aid ought to be proportional to the cost 'cause I worry that in a two-year college, for instance, if we're short on money, I'm a lot more tempted to have people take humanities courses and to shut down my hard technical courses because I can get a lot more students - more bang for the buck with my money by selling humanities, than selling STEM.

MARTIN: In fact, that's happening. There's a local college in this area where that's already happening because they're facing financial challenge. They've actually eliminated some of the majors, or the board has voted to eliminate majors like physics or chemistry because they're more expensive to teach.

And if you're just joining us, we're talking STEM and the humanities in higher education. Our guest is Anthony Carnevale, of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

I just want to play a clip from a conversation we previously had with Freeman Hrabowski. He's president of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, UMBC. That's one of the nation's top institutions, particularly well-known for graduating students of color in the STEM fields. And this is what he said about this whole question of how things should be taught.

FREEMAN HRABOWSKI: We have to tell our - some of our techies who - they come in thinking all they want is computer science. And we'll say, no. You need to know what it means to be human. You need to understand more about the arts because these are ways in which we express ourselves as human beings.

MARTIN: Now, so is that a - what is that? Is that a - I want to ask if you agree. But is that a moral question? Is that a philosophical question? Or is there an economic component to that, that perhaps we're not seeing?

CARNEVALE: It is, in the end, the function of any higher education curriculum in a modern republic, to allow people to live more fully in their time; to be more human and themselves, whoever they are. And - but that, in the end, requires some balance because you can't live more fully in your time if you're living under a bridge out of a shopping cart. So you have to study things that make you a doer as well as a bigger person.

MARTIN: So tie this to this original question that brought us together, this whole question of America's global competitiveness. So do - does this whole question about what should happen in the humanities, does that play in - humanities versus STEM - where does that debate play in this whole question of maintaining America's global competitiveness?

CARNEVALE: Well, in the American system, if it makes money, it leads. And that is where we're headed, in a lot of our education system. We're giving too many people occupational and job training - sometimes, fairly narrowly - and denying them the benefits of a full education. And as you know, in many, many cases, what we're dealing with here is the fact that all the lower-income and minority students are getting the job training; and upper-income and white students are getting the general education. So it creates a divide in the American population, I think, that's unhealthy.

MARTIN: But there's an argument, though, that that lack of exposure to languages and cultures is another thing that limits American workers. I mean, you find that many of the students coming here from other countries are bilingual or trilingual and that - so is that kind of part of the conversation, or not yet?

CARNEVALE: I first learned about this issue years ago, working for Chrysler Motors. And we discovered fairly quickly, when women began buying cars, that men, who were engineers - and principally, men - were making cars for other engineers. They had no empathy for the customer. They were making machines, and wanted to make the most powerful and elegant machines with no sense at all, no empathy for the people who would buy them. So we know that technical learning without some sense of the customer, some sense of your fellow worker, some ability to work on a team - all of that - more and more now in the workplace, we're requiring a whole new set of what people think of as softer skills to be successful.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, we only have about a minute left. We're going to talk, in a couple of minutes, about the situation in Philadelphia - the K-12 schools, the public schools, specifically. I mean, I think that there's a lot of talk about K-12 education being in crisis, in part because of the quality of the teachers. And is there any push to kind of rethink how teachers are taught or the value that we place on that profession?

CARNEVALE: I think, in the American case, in these times, the one thing that we all agree on is that individuals ought to be responsible for their own future, and their own success. And in the American system now, in the American economy, that success depends almost entirely on how well they do in school. That's different from 30 years ago. So I think when we fail children in school, we fail the republic - not just those children.

MARTIN: Well, you've given us a lot to think about, as usual. Anthony Carnevale is director and research professor at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce; here, in our Washington, D.C., studios. Professor Carnevale, thanks so much for joining us, once again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.